Dr. King leading the march in Selma (Image by Bettmann/Corbis)
Dr. King leading the march in Selma (Image by Bettmann/Corbis)

Last weekend I saw “Selma” after hearing rave reviews of the film from friends and colleagues. It was a moving and timely reminder of the sacrifices made by leaders of the civil rights movement who fought for – and sometimes died for- the right to vote for the black community. Their fight culminated in the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to this act, black Americans were excluded from the democratic process through subjective measures that left their eligibility to the discretion of election officials who often held deep-seated prejudices against them, especially in the South. In one scene of the film, civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote and is denied when she can’t name every single county judge in Alabama during a literacy test.

Many themes of “Selma” remain astoundingly relevant today. While voter disenfranchisement may seem like a thing of the past, a huge segment of our citizen voting age population remains disenfranchised from voting. Formerly incarcerated Americans continue to face barriers to voting in most states. Some states completely bar people with felony convictions from voting, long after they have served their time. Felony disenfranchisement laws have their roots in the Jim Crow South, and were designed to dilute black voting power during the period of Reconstruction when newly freed slaves were first given the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment. Today, we see the legacy of this phenomenon continue, as a staggering 1 out of every 13 African Americans are denied the right to vote because of their formerly incarcerated status -more than four times the rate of non-African Americans.

Fortunately, California does not permanently disenfranchise people convicted of a felony, but it falls short of ensuring complete access to the democratic process for its formerly incarcerated community.  In our new study, Barriers to Voting for California’s Formerly Incarcerated, the Greenlining Institute’s Claiming Our Democracy team found that over 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people we spoke to were confused about their right to vote, and understandably so – the laws about who is and is not eligible to vote are not intuitive.

California has no system of informing formerly incarcerated people of their right to vote and how they can register. We can take big steps toward closing that information gap just by making minor changes, like giving written and verbal notice about voter eligibility to people upon their release from prison. California should also extend the right to vote to those on parole. Black and Latino males make up seventy percent of the state prison population in California, and thus are disproportionately impacted by the ban on voting for parolees. By eliminating this restriction, California would join sixteen other states and increase access for people of color to the electoral process. Our state still has a long way to go to in providing equal access for all its citizens to the institution of voting.

As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the march from Selma, I think about how critical the right to vote is in ensuring that communities have control over the decisions that affect their lives. If a segment of our society faces barriers to participation in the electoral process, then we cannot have a truly inclusive democracy. Enfranchising our formerly incarcerated citizens can give them a sense of belonging and help them reintegrate into society. What better way to honor the legacy of Dr. King and all those who marched in Selma?